There I was, leafing through the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s season brochure, aghast at all the wondrous oddities contained therein: a season-long theme of refreshing acuity (the Seven Deadly Sins); concerts with up to three pieces of contemporary music; numerous works by dead but forgotten composers; scores by Mendelssohn and Mahler I’d never come across before; a bold decision to splice the movements of hallowed symphonies by Beethoven and Dvořák with miniature works by other composers.
There was so much to absorb, in fact, that it took someone else to point out that almost every concert in the Swedish orchestra’s current subscription season – all but three of the symphonic evening concerts, in fact – includes music from the pen of a woman. Those Mendelssohn and Mahler rarities were by Fanny and Alma, not Felix and Gustav. Across the season, there was a total of 24 scores by female composers, some written a couple of months ago, others a couple of centuries ago.
Positive discrimination isn’t unknown in Scandinavia, far from it. But talking about gender equality is often seen as crass. When I saw a Figaro in Helsinki directed by a woman, conducted by a woman, and commissioned by a female intendant under a female CEO who reported to a female board chair, I thought it worthy of some comment. But I was the only person in town who did. As far as I can see and read (which admittedly is not very far in Swedish), few have commented on the gender weighting of the Helsingborg orchestra’s programming. That’s partly because the townsfolk want to appraise their orchestra’s season with no political strings attached. But it’s also because, as in my case, the rampant creativity of the programmes has given them other things to think about.
That surely holds some valuable lessons. The first is that a belief in music, rather than a belief in music written by a certain sort of person, lies behind interesting programming. As soon you start to look beyond the safety of what you already know, you start to realise that programming is about more than creaming off most iconic and ‘high-quality’ pieces and presenting them in rotation over a period of four seasons. A desire to see and hear how composers possessed of different minds and backgrounds have viewed the world will lead us to include music by people who aren’t male and white. A process of qualitatively weighing up his symphony against her symphony probably won’t.
Despite the forward strides made by orchestras in particular over the last decade, they are still generally presenting the same core set of works to their audiences. A huge proportion of those works come from two specific time bands of 1780-1830 and 1890-1940 (anyone who has written regular blurbs for orchestra seasons brochures will recognise the trend). To a point, it’s understandable. Orchestras with far bigger halls and less state support than that in Helsingborg – and without the flexible operational model of an outfit like Aurora in the UK – can’t always afford to take the same risks. Many rely on subscriptions and are terrified of eroding core support. But case studies in the US and Scandinavia have proved that if you build audience trust by programming creatively and solidly, it is possible to take your core audience with you. Trust dissolves risk and over time the audience expands.
We have seen another model emerging recently too. Where many in the orchestral sector worry about throwing the baby out with the bathwater – shunning the showpieces on which their tradition is built – the recent season announcement from the LA Phil has demonstrated a certain belief in another way. To extend the metaphor, you could call it bashing down the bathroom’s walls altogether and annexing another room altogether, doubling reach.
For its centennial season, the Los Angeles Phil has decided to celebrate the world around it just as much as the tradition it embodies. It includes music by 61 living composers, 22 women composers and 27 composers of colour. It is a season of remarkable equality in which equality is not even stated as a theme. Instead, quality, celebration and tradition are. That’s the way to do it.